Yemen says kills two Qaeda leaders, critics voice doubt

658

Yemeni security sources said their forces had killed two al Qaeda leaders in the south during an offensive in the flashpoint Abyan province as it seeks to regain areas seized by Islamist militants.

Violence has gripped Yemen since February when protests erupted calling for an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule.

With Saleh convalescing in Riyadh after a bomb blast on his palace, Abyan has seen a rising challenge from militants, prompting fears in the West and neighbouring Saudi Arabia that al Qaeda’s Yemen wing is exploiting the security vacuum, Reuters reports.

The Defence Ministry website, 26 September.net, said its forces killed Ayedh al-Shabwani and Awad Mohammed al-Shabwani in fierce fighting Wednesday.

But opposition groups and security analysts were sceptical, saying the government wanted to show it has the upper hand in Abyan, which has seen daily bloodshed since militants seized the city of Jaar in March and provincial capital Zinjibar in May.

Ali Dahmas, an opposition figure from Abyan who had fled the south in recent weeks, said he thought the government was hiding how strong the militants were.
“These (announcements) are just painkillers, they are just an attempt to please the United States. But then the battle will just move to another city,” he said.

Yemen previously reported the killing of Ayedh al-Shabwani in an air raid in January 2010, and in 2009 said it killed someone named Awad al-Shabwani.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) denied the deaths of both men at that time.

A government official, who declined to be named, acknowledged that critics had grounds to be sceptical. “They have a right to some doubts because there has been a lack of precision in some past information given, but our media announces the news as we receive it from the area,” he said.

In recent weeks, security sources in Abyan have reported dozens of militants killed by the army, including at least two other leaders of al Qaeda’s Yemen wing.

The group has yet to confirm the death of any of its leaders, but often takes weeks to make announcements online.

As unrest continued, a woman was killed apparently by a stray bullet and a man was stabbed to death in an altercation with Saleh loyalists holding a demonstration in the capital Sanaa.

In southern Yemen, two militants died when explosives they were placing for an attack went off early, the Defence Ministry said.

HARD TO CORROBORATE

Yemeni al Qaeda analyst Said Obeid said his tally of AQAP militants allegedly killed since the beginning of the year was around 300 — the same number of AQAP members the government has said are operating in Yemen.
“What I find suspicious is the Shabwani killings were said to be in an air strike and the announcement came immediately after the raid. The government is looking for victories right now even if they are lies,” he said.

Saleh’s opponents accuse him of letting his forces ease their grip around areas suspected of hosting militants, in order to convince the international community that only he stands in the way of a militant takeover.

Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Dubai-based INEGMA group, said there was some truth to the opposition’s argument, but believed the government’s plan may have backfired.
“It’s very clear the government let security slide in order to come to the rescue later. But now, that doesn’t seem to be working out so well,” he said.

Some analysts argue while the government may well have killed many militants in its recent offensive, it is unlikely all of those were al Qaeda operatives. They may instead have been members of other militant groups or perhaps even tribal groups that have become part of the fray.
“Quite often the roles attributed to these people by the Yemeni authorities can’t really be corroborated,” said Jeremy Binnie, a senior security analyst from IHS Jane’s.
“I think there’s a tendency from quite a few of the security forces to give the impression the people they’re taking out are quite important, and they may over exaggerate their importance.”